Follow the news and there’s no shortage of imagery of war and it’s destructive side-effects. Can these images actually be considered beautiful? The Jack Shainman Gallery’s thinks so. In it’s exhibit, A Change of Place, this Kinderhook, New York gallery features four artists who share riveting, sometimes shocking, and deeply human images of war.
But how can photos of people suffering, total destruction, and violence be a thing of beauty? I get that such images can be expertly photographed or painted. But when the content is so horrifying can we truly deem it beautiful? It feels, well, amoral.
I’m not the only person raising this question. After experiencing A Change of Place, Mebrak Tareke ponders this question in his post aptly entitled: The Unsettling Urge to Find Beauty Amid War. He shares some of the best work from the show, especially from artists like Richard Mosse and Hayv Kahraman, and dissects them with a keen eye.
So how are they works of beauty?
He, along with veteran war photographer, Don McCullin, whom he cites, explain that we have an impulse to find beauty in — not because of but in spite of — the horror of war. He doesn’t truly explain why but my sense is that we need to find such beauty to help us feel a sense of hope. He shares another explanation offered by one of the photographers: such work gives dignity to the war-torn people and places captured. His best explanation is that through these works of art we gain a new perspective. He writes: This form of art
“also offers an opportunity… for us to reflect on violence in ways that perhaps television and the news may not. In A Change of Place, there are images that really push me to want to uncover the past of places we may have lost, instead of making me look the other way.”
But I would take it a step further. Beauty doesn’t necessary imply goodness. When we appreciate beautiful images we don’t always have to take pleasure in them as much as UNDERSTAND them. When we visit the MOMA and stare at works of art, we may not be enjoying the experience they evoke. But we are being moved. We are learning something. For beauty to effect us, it needs to provoke a reaction. It could be a soothing pleasant one or a jarring and startling one. Of course with any works of art, we expect a degree of craft, talent, technical skill, imagination and originality. Crap is crap. But there is no ONE type of beauty. In fact, sometimes it’s important to witness, even partake in the ugly side of beauty to appreciate the beauty of our everyday and what it takes to create it.
So can imagery of devastation be horrible, painful and frightening? Yes. Does it mean we are pleased to see pain and destruction? No. But sometimes we need to experience this form of art. It not only sheds light on other worlds, it inevitably forces us to appreciate or question our own.